Defiance and Gay Frog Donuts: How Strange Matter Coffee is Navigating the Anti-LGBTQ+ Backlash

“Our decorations stay up year-round.” Photo by Jennifer A. Berggren, courtesy of Strange Matter Coffee

For Cara Nader, founder of Strange Matter Coffee, the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ protests isn’t an abstract issue on Twitter. Since 2014, Lansing, Michigan-based Strange Matter has built a reputation for offering a welcoming, inclusive environment—flying a progress pride flag, hosting events, and raising funds for local LGBTQ+ organizations.

After the 2016 election, Nader says, they decided to be more vocal in their approach, and to more readily operate a safe and supportive space for people to congregate. “Obviously we were gay before 2016,” she says, “but when the election happened we really decided to let people know that we were a gay-owned coffee shop and that we were very supportive of the queer community and the trans community.”

Strange Matter was subject to threatening letters in March, an experience which solidified Nader’s belief that coffee shops’ role as a third place between work and home makes them especially important—and especially exposed. “Coffee shops are such a target because it’s like your living room,” Nader tells me. “You got all these people there, you can just walk in and hang out, and it's open to the public. It’s a very easy target.”

Incidents of hate targeting LGBTQ+ coffee shops are occurring ever more frequently, and across the United States. A drag story time event at a Tempe, Arizona, coffee shop was cancelled due to a bomb threat. A coffee shop in Texas was verbally harassed because of its Pride flags. Multiple cafes had their Pride flags torn down or stolen. A cafe in Santa Rosa, California, had anti-LGBTQ+ flyers plastered across its windows, while another California coffee shop’s windows were smashed.

This is a small selection of the hate directed at LGBTQ+ coffee shops over the past few months, a reflection of the growing anti-gay and anti-trans movement that is sweeping the country. State governments are pushing forward with nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills, and corporations are getting squirrely: Starbucks has clamped down on Pride Month decorations, allegedly fearing a Target-like firestorm from the far right.

Nader says that Strange Matter has been on the receiving end of a number of threats and hostile incidents in the past, from negative reviews on social media all the way up to in-person protests.  In March of 2022, a local brewery backed down from hosting a planned “MAGA mixer” in the face of public outcry led in part by Strange Matter. “They blamed us for getting a local MAGA rally canceled,” Nader explains of that incident. “Which, like, I wish I had that kind of power! So we had to paper our windows for a few days because people were filming inside, and we had to change our phone number because they’d blasted our address and our number all over the internet for people to call and harass us.”

However the recent threatening letter, versions of which were also sent to two other coffee shops in Lansing and Detroit, was “the scariest incident I’ve ever experienced and that our shops have ever experienced,” Nader says. “Even though it was incredibly incoherent, [it] was still pretty terrifying. Out of hundreds of coffee shops, maybe thousands in the state of Michigan, it was sent to a handful of coffee shops that are either queer-owned or outwardly supporting the LGBTQ community. And to know that someone clearly picked us out for a reason, it wasn’t random—that is really unsettling.”

Strange Matter decided to close for a few days, to let the staff get some space from the incident and to see what the police, and eventually the FBI, could find out. (“Unfortunately the FBI isn’t super chatty when it comes to cases,” Nader says when I ask if they’ve had any updates on the case.) Staff were paid for the time away, and customers raised money to help cover lost tips. “The staff was obviously concerned with receiving the letter and being on the customer-facing side of that targeting,” Nader says. “They’re the ones who have to stand there and the door opens 400 times a day and they have to look up and make eye contact and hope it’s not the person who wrote the letter.”

Has this experience changed the way Strange Matter promotes itself publicly or what sort of events it hosts?

“I spoke with the staff about some events we were talking about hosting,” Nader says. “‘If we host a drag event, is that going to bring protesters, is that going to bring an unsafe situation for the staff, and how do we mitigate that or what do we do?’ And the staff’s overall opinion on the matter was basically, ‘We're here and we're going to do this and we're going to support people and we're not going to be afraid because that's what they want.’ That's the goal, right? To stop these events and to stop people from flying flags.”

Humour is also part of Strange Matter’s defense mechanism at this point. After the MAGA rally in 2022 was canceled, and they were briefly the focus of right-wing ire, Nader decided to respond. A local right wing radio station had written about the incident, mentioning the “gay frogs” conspiracy theory made famous by far right shock jock Alex Jones’ 2015 rant about “chemicals in the water that turn the friggin' frogs gay!” that has since become a meme (and inspired at least one scholarly article).

“At the time, with our reviews tanking and social media just blowing up, it seemed like the only way to cope was to laugh about it all,” Nader says. “So we made these lil’ gay frog donuts. Joke’s on them—we've made a thing out of the gay frog donuts and stickers and raised a lot of money for our local LGBTQIA+ org.”

Nader and Strange Matter’s resolute response echoes the reaction of other LGBTQ+ cafes that have been on the receiving end of hate in recent months. “Showing people that we are not backing down is the greatest way we can kind of stand for our support for the community,” Brick Road Coffee co-owner Gabe Hagen told a local Tempe news channel after the coffee shop received a bomb threat. In fact, all the coffee shops mentioned earlier told the press similar things after they were targeted—defiance in the face of hatred.

“Hate and violence in this country has gotten so out of hand,” Nader says, “but we try really hard to make sure that everyone feels safe, whether it's our customers or the staff or our community.”

Aren’t they adorable? Courtesy of Strange Matter Coffee